Tale of the Seven Beggars: The Birds

After these festivities they all went to bed, but the next day the bride and groom woke up early and began to think of the beggar with the crooked neck, and to long for him. He appeared as the others had, saying, “Here I am.” He said,

I blessed you before, saying may you become like me, but now I give you as my wedding present that you will indeed become like me.

Do you think my neck is crooked? Far from it! I have a lovely straight neck. Here’s why it appears to be askew: the world is all puffed up with vanity, and I refuse to add a single breath to the general inflation. I resolutely keep my head turned aside from worldly arrogance and this makes my neck look bent.

But I really do have an excellent neck, and an even more excellent voice, with which I can imitate exactly every noise in the world. Every wordless sound, I can reproduce to perfection, and I have an affidavit to this effect from the Two Countries.

There is a country in the world that surpasses all others in the art of music. The inhabitants of this land devote themselves exclusively to the knowledge of voice and instruments. Even the children there can all play something. The most talentless amateur from that country would be reckoned a virtuoso anywhere else. And as for the professors in their conservatory or the king or the royal orchestra—their musical genius is almost frightening.

One day the great musicians of that land sat boasting to one another, each in turn claiming to be the greatest player. This one was the best on this instrument, another was best on that one. A certain person was the best on several different instruments, then one bragged he didn’t even need an instrument to be the best player, he could make the sound of any given instrument exquisitely played using only his voice. And so it went on . . .

Then one claimed he could make with his voice a greater sound than all the other instruments, to wit, the sound of a great big drum being thumped—and this “playing” did in fact drown out all the other performances. Then someone showed that he could imitate with his voice the sound of a cannon being fired—

I (the beggar with the crooked neck) was there, and I told them my voice was better than any of theirs, and here was the proof:

The question of who is the greatest musician can easily be decided. He’s the one who can help the Two Countries.

The Two Countries are a thousand miles apart, and no one can sleep at night in either of them, for as soon as it’s dark they all start weeping and wailing, men, women, and children. For in both countries is heard at nightfall a dreadful unearthly keening, and no one who hears it can refrain from lamentation. Every region of these countries is so thrilled with nightly grief it’s a wonder the stones don’t melt into tears.

Anyone who is supremely wise in the science of sound should be able to help these countries emerge from their dirges. Or if that’s too much to ask—at the very least he should be able to imitate the dreadful requiem that keeps them weeping in sympathy.

All the musicians asked, “Can you bring us there to hear it?”

“I’ll bring you there,” said I (the beggar with the crooked neck.)

They traveled with me to one of the countries, arriving there at nightfall when the nightly concert began. The musicians couldn’t help joining in the woeful chorus, and that’s how far their intervention went.

The next day I asked them, “Can you at least tell me where the noise is coming from?”

“No,” they replied, “but we’d bet you can.”

“Indeed,” said I. There are two birds, a he and a she, the only two of their kind in the world. The she-bird got lost. They’ve been looking for one another for a long, long time, and in the course of their search both went utterly astray. Since neither had any idea of how to proceed, they each stayed where they were and built themselves nests fairly close to each of the Two Countries. Not all that close, but close enough for their voices to be clearly heard in the nearby land.

Every night each bird keens
its sad helpless passion for the other,
he for her and she for him,
a more than mortal longing,
a sweet unearthly dirge,
and this is what keeps the people awake at night,
weeping for a loss they cannot quite define.

I told them all this, but they didn’t believe me. They demanded that I bring them to where they could see these birds.

“Oh, I can bring you there,” I replied. But if the sound of their grief is as much as you can bear, and that makes you burst into tears, overcome—if I took you to where either of those birds were, you would surely die—of joy.

You see, by day all the other birds visit the unique lost birds, they console and encourage them, saying “Don’t despair, you’re going to find one another.” And each of the birds is so glad at these words, it crows so joyously, a mortal man couldn’t survive the happiness.

But happiness doesn’t travel like sorrow, it isn’t so apt to be shared, which is why the Two Countries only hear the laments. But direct exposure to such absolute happiness as is found by day close by them would prove fatal, so you can’t go see the birds in person.

“Can you help them?” asked the musicians.

Yes I could, because I can imitate any sound in the world, and what’s more, I’m a ventriloquist, I can throw my voice and have it heard coming from wherever I wish. I can send the sound of the he-bird’s call to the she-bird, and her call to him, and leading them by their calls I can reunite them.

The musicians refused to believe I could do as I said. So I led them into a forest. There I gave them to hear the sound of a door creaking open then being shut and the click of someone inside sliding back the bolt to lock it. Then they heard a gunshot and the muffled thuds of a big dog bounding through deep snow to fetch slain game. The musicians all looked at one another. They hadn’t seen any of the things they’d heard, and the sounds hadn’t seemed to be coming from me.

So of course I did exactly what I said I would, and I have an affidavit to that effect from the Two Counties. And now as a wedding present I impart to you the same abilities, you will become like me.

These words produced great joy in everyone.

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